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TEXAS: The really wild westDeserted roads, sun-bleached rocks, cacti and few people: Big Bend is 'not on the road to anywhere else'ANN ELSDON, FreelancePublished: Saturday, September 22Nothing much was stirring as we drove into the ghost town of Terlingua, near the Mexican border in the Big Bend region of western Texas.The ruined stone houses of mercury miners who had abandoned the place in the 1940s mingled quietly with ochre-coloured rocks of the surrounding hills, the bleached wooden crosses stood vigil in the cemetery, and rusting machinery was scattered here and there. It didn't seem the liveliest place to spend the night. So when a sudden, violent windstorm roared through the town underscoring the loneliness and eeriness of the place, we scurried from our lodging for the night - an elegantly restored miner's dwelling - down the hill to the Starlight Theatre in search of human company.The place was jam-packed. What had once been an open-roofed cinema for miners is now a lively bar and restaurant, and a hub for local residents. On stage, a cowboy sang about sitting in his underwear watching the 6 o'clock news. There's an element of the surreal, of being on the edge and very far away from everything familiar when you venture into Big Bend, one of the last really remote frontiers of the United States.To get there from San Antonio is a 640-kilometre drive west along almost empty Route 90, through scenery that reminds you of every Western movie you've seen. When the car radio starts playing Is It Just the Tequila Talking, and the U.S. Border Patrol begins to make its presence felt, you are entering a wild territory redolent with past struggles of bandits, cowboys, ranchers, revolutionaries, Indians, the U.S. Cavalry and miners."It's not on the road to anywhere else," said Mike, who has lived in the Big Bend area for 30 years. Indeed, the massive, forbidding sierras and canyons along the Rio Grande create a natural barrier between Mexico and the United States, and there are few legal border crossings.The Big Bend derives its name from the huge U-turn dug by the Rio Grande as it curves around vast tracts of wilderness encompassing the Chihuahuan Desert spreading over from Mexico, and monumental mountain ranges thrown up by volcanic activity eons ago. The silence is uncanny, and the air is exhilarating.To get to Panther Junction, one of the entrances to the 3,240 square-kilometre Big Bend National Park, involves driving almost 130 kilometres south of Alpine from Route 90. Sun-bleached rocks, washed-out riverbeds, cacti, creosote bushes and the contorted and castellated ranges of pink, brown, orange and purple mountains fill the vast spaces as far as the horizon. There's no sign of human habitation. The radio and cellphone cut out.The first Spanish explorers who came here in the 16th century called it the "uninhabited land," and today just 13,000 people live in this 15,000 square-kilometre area. But this inhospitable landscape is home to more than 70 species of mammals, at least that many species of reptiles and amphibians, more than 400 species of birds, and 1,000 kinds of plants. There's always something blooming in the desert.At the park visitor's centre, rangers give advice on the conditions of trails and report any recent mountain lion and bear sightings.Although we did not see mountain lions, or bears, coyotes or bobcats, we certainly heard stories of encounters and sightings. But bands of javelinas (collared peccaries), black hairy creatures that resemble wild pigs, are a fairly common sight nibbling cactus by the side of the road at dusk.Many people come here to raft the Rio Grande through the 450-metre high canyons. Thrill-seeking locals say they love to ride the swollen rivers during flash-floods after summer thunderstorms, but several experienced outfitters in Study Butte and Terlingua can arrange guided trips from half a day to a week for the more cautious. Horseback riding and camel-trekking are other ways to penetrate the more remote interior of the region.Even without getting out of the car, you can contemplate the dramatic panoramas of desert, mountain ranges and badlands. With the constantly changing light, it's hard to stop exclaiming, "Wow" every few minutes. Toward sunset, the mountains are drenched in a pinky-orange glow, and even the cacti become fluorescent.To get up close to the flora and fauna, and to enjoy the silence, it's best to walk. From pathways and roads you can appreciate the tumultuous geological upheavals that created the mountain ranges, razor-backed hills, the chimney stacks, the flat table-tops, the squeezed Gaud?-like sculptural forms of white, red and pink rocks.For those not up to rigorous long hikes deep into the wilderness, there are easy trails and lookouts. One of the more popular hikes is to Santa Elena Canyon; another is the longer walk to Boquillas Canyon. The Rio Grande flows through both. They straddle the border with Mexico, and until 9/11 were open to people crossing from both sides. Now, they're closed.Not all paths are marked on official maps, as they are within delicate eco-systems, but locals may tell you about these "secret" places.But there's more to Big Bend than the national park. Continuing west from Terlingua along Route 170, the steep, serpentine road follows the Rio Grande for 100 kilometres, skirting the southern borders of the relatively new 1,300 square-kilometre Big Bend Ranch State Park. It's one of the most spectacular drives in the United States.There are no roads into the state park, and hikers need to be well-prepared before venturing into the rugged interior where there are fine examples of ancient rock art. An alternative is to sign up for a Jeep-tour organized by the Texas Parks Service.After almost a week of roaming through the area with no fixed itinerary in mind, we reluctantly turned the car north at Presidio to pick up Route 90 again for the long drive back to San Antonio. We made one last stop, at the Paisano Hotel in Marfa where James Dean stayed while filming Giant.It's impossible to see everything in one trip; the area is so vast. It's seductive, and you'll want to stay longer. At the Big Bend River Tours office, an employee warned, "If you stay more than five days here, you might never leave."
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